Where are the workers?

One of the only chances I get to watch movies these days is mid-flight. Not that I don’t enjoy watching films but it’s something I rarely prioritize in my over-scheduled life. While I used to never bother with in-flight movies because of the poor screen and sound quality, the advent of personal screens stocked with up-to-date movies on many aircraft has given me the chance to catch up somewhat current films – albeit about four months after their theatre success.

So on this flight I finally got around to watching There Will Be Blood, a film recommended to me by a friend back in the fall. He told me it was based on the book Oil!, written in 1929 by Upton Sinclair, so I decided to read before watching since I am one of those people who believes that seeing the movie first ruins a book. Hm. This time I’m not so sure. While I enjoyed both the book and the movie, I would have rather not known the two were related at all as having read the book greatly diminished my appreciation for the film.

Why? Because that has got to be one of the strangest film treatments I have ever seen. Quite possibly the loosest use of the term “adaptation” one could get away with. A treatment that diminishes every character, the history it is meant to portray, and the artistic vision of Sinclair all at once. Not that the film is of poor quality, I found it a compelling story in its own right – but I think it’s really a shame that Sinclair’s name got attached to it at all.

The book Oil! is a fictionalized account of the oil prospectors and burgeoning barons of Southern California in the first three decades of the 20th century. In a nutshell, it is focused on Joe Ross (called Daniel Plainview in the film), his son Bunny and the doings of erstwhile prophet Eli Watkins (son of a poor farming family who sell out to the oil prospector – known as Eli Sunday in the film). As the book progresses through the narrative of oil development exploration, so too does Sinclair explore the tensions between the expansion of American capital epitomized through Daniel, the rise in evangelical religion during the period as lead by “prophets” like Eli, and the increase in workers’ struggle and organized resistance (the IWW, the Communist Party, etc) as taken up by Bunny.

As a foray into social and economic history goes, it is probably one of the best accounts of this period despite the fact it is a fiction. Because Sinclair was writing as these events were unfolding, his tale is rich with anecdotes that were part of his time, and while his tendency to write in the moment takes away from his ability to step back with a bit more perspective there is an immediacy to the story that takes you right back to the dusty hills of California, the brutality of capital development, and the resulting human and ecological scarring of individual rapaciousness.

I suppose it is telling that the director changed the name of the story from “Oil!” to “There Will be Blood”, a line from the book twisted here in order to suit the new focus of the film which is the egotistical tension between Daniel and Eli (and the blood both real and allegorical in their spheres) – the complexity of the book boiled down into an intermittent battle between two individuals set against the backdrop of the expanding oil industry. As far as I am concerned Bunny never shows up in the movie, though there is an orphan (his father killed in Daniel’s first drilling operation) who is taken on as the “heir” – but since the character “HW” does, says and acts nothing like the son in the book, he really has to be considered some extra character written in for the sake of the Director’s needs. Likewise for the “brother” of Daniel who shows up mid-way through the movie as an example of the type of people who were trying to rip off these newly-rich prospectors. By removing Bunny from the story, so goes the whole story of the working class who minted the oil fields for their owners in the first place.

As a result, workers in the film are merely extras who occasionally get killed by falling pieces of oil machinery or who are seen digging holes. And if you know anything about Sinclair, you know he would turn in his grave to see any historical treatment that didn’t involve at least some element of the working class story in it. His whole raison d’etre as a writer was in fact to tell the stories of working people – the poor, the IWW, the union organizers, the anarchists hung in the streets of Boston and Chicago. And while I can understand that trying to include the whole struggle aspect in a film like this, to ignore the agency of working people against this backdrop seems a real dishonour to a man who gave his life to their stories.

But of course it’s not surprising, particularly in light of the way the American establishment has treated Sinclair since the 1950s when the red scare swept the real history of the United States into closets and under rugs. One of the most popular writers from 1905 into the 1940s, Sinclair is quite often excluded on the literature or history curricula in the high schools or colleges of his native country. A writer, not unlike Steinbeck in terms of content, quality and analysis, many of Sinclair’s books have been out of print for decades (luckily they were *so* popular in his time it is easy to pick up first editions of The Jungle, the Lanny Budd series, and many other titles). And why? Because unabashedly and for his whole career as a writer and teacher, Sinclair was a Red. An open one. A radical who never recanted but instead ran as a gubernatorial candidate in California twice as an open socialist (once on the Democratic ticket – if you can believe the Democrats were ever like that!)

Having been raised in the latter part of the twentieth century, it is difficult for me to envision a time that the writings of Steinbeck and Sinclair were sold in high volume. That the stories of the people, their strikes, their creations, were central to the literary canon of the “new world”. That people knew they were producers, and not simply consumers. Raised post-blacklist it’s hard to imagine. But so clearly the modern adaptation of this book epitomizes the worst of it. Another history devoid of the people who made the country’s wealth with their hands and hard labour. Sixty years after the red scare, 25 years since the “end of the cold war”, and we have forgotten our stories were ever told by anyone.

To be clear, it’s not that the oil baron is portrayed as a nice guy. Nor is the prophet. They are both painted as individuals with their own twisted agendas – and each meet their own bad end. Portrayed as sociopaths they may be (really undercutting Sinclair’s analysis of capital expansion) – but the point is that they *are* portrayed. Religion and robber barons warrant screen time. Workers and wobblies do not.

Certainly reading the book and then watching the modern film adaptation, provides an understanding of our shifting cultural landscape in a way few other things could. And although I’m not sure if I need to be reminded that working people don’t count, it’s good to recognize that once they did.

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